Tech-related job opportunities are rapidly expanding in the UK, with employment in the digital tech sector increasing by 13.2% between 2014 and 2017 (according to Tech Nation's Report 2018). But although the jobs are increasing, diversity remains a challenge – specifically gender diversity. Ethnic diversity is above UK average (15% are of black, Asian and ethnic minority background compared to 10% across all UK jobs), but only 19% of the digital tech workforce are female, compared to 49% across all UK jobs.

Add to this the challenge of being female from a disadvantaged background, and the barriers might start stacking up.

The 'go_girl: code+create' project at the University of Oxford's Department of Education, supported by funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA), aims to support young NEET (not in education, employment or training) women in Oxfordshire in broadening aspirations and developing their capabilities in the use of digital tools, media production and coding. It’s a collaborative project between the university and Goldman Sachs, aligning with the UK government’s Industrial Strategy through the ‘Developing Skills’ pillar.

Young women from non-traditional academic backgrounds living in neighbouring towns around Oxford with a high percentage of social housing are a highly marginalised group. Many of these neighbourhoods show only low participation in higher education.

“Our participants are between the ages of 16 to 23 and, for a variety of reasons, many of them have struggled academically in traditional school settings,” says Dr Tracey Denton-Calabrese. “Our primary goal is to help them develop a plan for a career in coding, tech-related fields or follow other pathways to independence – for example, pursue additional training, education or employment.”

“There has been a push to develop more digitally capable knowledge workers and whilst there are numerous coding initiatives available, it is rare to find one that is structured to adequately support marginalised young women who may have complicating circumstances. This group requires more intensive intervention to increase their chances of taking up and benefiting from new tech-related opportunities.”

The women participating in the project have storyboarded and filmed a series of short vignettes on their mobile phones, telling stories of successful Oxford women through the ages – creatively exploring and reflecting on their experiences, the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them, as well as relating these stories to the participants’ own experiences.

“Part of the process of empowering our participants is to help them understand the struggles and accomplishments of women in the past and present, and learn how successful women have dealt with their challenges,” explains Dr Denton-Calabrese.

“One of the unique aspects of the go_girl project is that it reaches a population of disadvantaged young women who have largely been ignored in discussions and plans for increasing the digital workforce.“

The women also received training in coding tools such as Phonegap, to develop the content, story and architecture of a mobile app which could present the video vignettes to a wider audience.

“Learning to code and create is certainly a very important aspect of the programme. Our research indicates that the young women, after having created an app, a website or a game, come away with a sense of accomplishment and an understanding that they can have success in an academic environment – and that they are capable of creating meaningful projects with technology. Building confidence plays an important part, and the majority of our participants have said that the programme has helped them to become more confident,” she adds.

The ESRC IAA funding enabled Dr Denton-Calabrese to be seconded with project partner Goldman Sachs to further develop the Go_Girl programme, by mapping out the potential for industry impact and further collaboration.

The programme has already had clear impact, with participants who have decided to pursue tech-related careers: “One of our former participants was accepted onto a Masters Program in Games Design and Development at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. A current participant has been asked by a local website design company to help design a website for a client, and several other participants are now in college and working in various fields.”